LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
UNITED States-Bolivian relations have taken a dive since charges of cocaine-related corruption were leveled by US officials at top members of the Bolivian government. Pervasive corruption is also undermining combined US-Bolivian efforts to curb drug trade in Bolivia, the world's second-largest producer of coca and cocaine, US officials say.
Three top Bolivian officials involved in the fight against drugs have resigned within a 10-day period after US allegations that they were linked to cocaine trafficking.
Interior Minister Guillermo Capobianco and Police Chief Felipe Carvajal angrily denied the accusations by US officials which were published in a newspaper article. The story said the officials had gotten payoffs from cocaine traffickers. The officials say they stepped down one week after the article was published for "reasons of national dignity."
Mr. Capobianco is a close friend and political confidant of President Jaime Paz Zamora and regarded as the No. 3 man in the Leftist Revolutionary Movement, the ruling party.
A week before Capobianco's resignation, Col. Faustino Rico Toro resigned his post as head of the 1,000-strong antidrug police, known as Umopar, after just five days in the post. Mr. Rico Toro was head of Bolivian Army intelligence during the cocaine-backed military regime of Gen. Luis Garc 146&gt;a Meza from 1980-81. The general was an associate of former Nazi Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyons.
US Ambassador Robert Gelbard was said to have been flabbergasted at Colonel Rico Toro's appointment, orchestrating a threat by the Bush administration to suspend all nonhumanitarian aid to Bolivia, worth more than $100 million.
Human rights groups, the business sector, and even Cabinet members joined the chorus of opposition to the Rico Toro appointment. A senior labor leader described the decision as equivalent to "asking a cat to guard a can of sardines."
US applies pressure
It is an open secret in political circles that all three resignations came after fierce US pressure. Some analysts complain the US achieved its aims without providing any evidence of the charges. And opposition deputies across the political spectrum have condemned what they call US interference in Bolivian affairs.
"[The resignations] prove the government's complete lack of autonomy - and a government unarmed against corruption," says left-wing deputy Alfonso Ferrufino. "The resignations also suggest there may be some truth in the accusations."
A series of recent official US reports have increasingly identified rampant corruption as a factor hampering the fight against Bolivia's $400 million cocaine industry.
A December 1989 report by the US Drug Enforcement Administration stated that in Bolivia "corruption is a major factor at all levels. All elements of the military are involved in drug trafficking to some extent."
An internal memo written by Kirk Kotula,then-program officer for the State Department's International Narcotics Matters, said Mr. Paz Zamora had appointed "a number of corrupt officials to key antinarcotics roles. When questioned by the US ambassador, the president replied that 'since most police were corrupt, it didn't matter anyway,' " the memo said.
The latest February 1991 US State Department drug report on Bolivia pinpoints "pervasive corruption" as impeding the war on drugs. US officials privately speculate that the Rico Toro appointment was part of a wider strategy by senior government members to put corrupt officials into key antidrug posts.
The appointment was also the third government decision in recent weeks that diplomats have labeled "unusual." In Feburary, a finance company named Finsa was allowed to restart its operations, although it had been previously shut down when traces of cocaine were found on two planes belonging to the company's owners.
Finsa had been offering a return of 6 percent a month on dollar deposits, prompting press speculation that the company may have been laundering cocaine money.
Also last month, a self-declared cocaine trafficker named "Meco" Dominguez, who was arrested in a big drug roundup last September, was revealed to have somehow acquired a telephone in his prison cell.
US Army's role grows
Meanwhile, Fernando Kieffer, president of the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies, has confirmed that US Army instructors have arrived in the country to train officials of the Bolivian Army to take part in the country's fight against drugs. It is the first time the Bolivian Army has been trained for a role in fighting drug trafficking.
As many as 50 Army instructors from the US Special Forces are expected to arrive this month to train two light infantry battalions in the military base of Montero, 60 miles north of the eastern city of Santa Cruz.
Diplomatic sources have confirmed that about 500 Bolivian soldiers will be trained to carry out antinarcotics activities, including border patrols and logistical support for the antidrug police. Both US and Bolivian officials insist the Army will not have a presence in the main coca-growing regions of the Chapare, where approximately 50,000 farmers cultivate coca.
The government signed an agreement last May with the Bush administration stating that if the Bolivian Army participated in the drug war, it would receive part of a $33 million package of military aid. Since May, the government has said that the final decision has still not been made.